Recently, Philanthropy Roundtable sat down with Brandon Edwin Chrostowski, founder, president and CEO of EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, a nonprofit that provides formerly incarcerated adults with a foundation in the culinary and hospitality industries, plus a support network for long-term success. In addition to culinary training, students receive free housing, legal services, basic medical care, clothing, job coaching, literary programs and more. Chrostowski created the institute in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2007, and since then has grown its impact to graduate 100 students each year. Chrostowski was recently named a semi-finalist for the prestigious 2023 James Beard Awards as Outstanding Restauranteur (nationally). Finalists for these awards will be revealed later this month, and winners will be announced in June.
Q: Please introduce us to EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute. What’s your mission, history and focus?
EDWINS is about hope and how to achieve it. We’re a program helping men and women coming out of the criminal justice system. We do it in a unique fashion—we are a fine-dining French restaurant. We’re teaching culinary fundamentals all while supporting people who need a second chance.
I started EDWINS because I had a break in life. I found myself in county jail and facing a long sentence when I was 18. I found forgiveness from a judge and mentorship from a chef. That led me out of Detroit and around the world. I wanted to give that back to others who had the same experience I had.
Q: You have a personal story that impacted you and contributed to your starting EDWINS. Can you share that?
After a great career around the world in Paris and New York, I found myself on the phone with the chef who mentored me. He told me that the young man I worked next to in the kitchen in New York—Quinton—was murdered. He was killed and found in an abandoned building. To me, that was the moment I realized it could have turned out differently for him if he had what I had—and that was a restaurant and a mentor.
What I remember the most about starting EDWINS was this idea of the unknown. I was dead certain it would work, but how we went about getting there and making it happen was really the uncertainty. What made it real was the community—the community of donors, whether they were seven years old or 70 years old. It was the community of diners and the community of students who all came out to support what we’re doing—second chances, great food and this belief that every human being, regardless of their past, has a right to a great future.
Q: How did you expand?
So, EDWINS started out as a program in prison and then eventually a restaurant, which is what we’re known for. Some of the most important work we’ve done has been based out of need, based out of a barrier that we have to knock down. Things like housing, childcare and services for case management. Really, this is an inside-out organization. When we see the problem that someone is facing, that’s when we come in to remove that impediment. That’s why we’ve expanded so much, from just a little program in prison to now two restaurants, a butcher shop, a bakery, a campus with housing for students, graduates, family, library, fitness centers, a park, a farm and now a daycare center. It’s all based from need, and really proud to do it.
Q: Why is your focus on reentry specifically?
Reentry is an issue that doesn’t just plague families of someone who has been incarcerated or the world of men and women returning home. This is a big financial burden. We spend nearly $74 billion a year on this criminal justice system. That’s about seven times more than for higher education. So, if you think about something that would benefit not just human beings or families or business for that matter, it’s the burden that’s put on a taxpaying citizen to continually fund this merry-go-round. So supporting reentry is not just supporting a second chance; it’s supporting an ecosystem and the economy in our country.
The sheer volume of men and women coming home each year is 600,000 with an additional 2.1 million incarcerated. Most of them are coming home, so why not support a second chance? It’s only going to help our communities become stronger and families become better. It will help employers have workers to support their business model. It’s not just the righteous thing to do. It’s the right thing to do, and the just thing to do. When you support reentry, your dollar is going a lot further than you might think. It impacts many more people than you see.
Q: How are you able to scale up faster?
The goal of EDWINS is to change the face of reentry—change the perception of how someone coming out of the criminal justice system should be treated. There has been no greater tool we’ve seen to accomplish this than to be on tablets within the prison system. We started with a restaurant, and we’ve deepened it with housing and the other amenities. We’ve doubled down on our leadership training program—but now the net is being cast wider.
If the state and the institution approves, the EDWINS training and curriculum can be on a tablet within prison walls. They’ll find our video series, 30-plus hours of videos, test, quizzes and curriculum. We’re finding that men and women are taking this tablet program very seriously and completing it. They’re eventually coming to EDWINS in Cleveland. So, the sheer scale of what we’re doing has spread.
Prison is where the seed of hope can begin. That’s where someone’s dream can start. We’re just happy to provide something that can nourish that seed.
Q: What are you most proud of that you’ve been able to accomplish?
Being able to never leave the place that I came from. What I mean by that is that I’ve never left that dining room floor or that kitchen or being around people who are fighting for a second chance. It would be easy to punch the clock and be done for the day and just rest on a reputation. But I’m proud to still be connected to everyone in the program and being able to still work hard every day—and show others that hard work wins and education wins.
Q: Of all the opportunities to give out there, why would a donor support second chances?
We’ve all made mistakes and have a past. Some of us maybe weren’t caught. Some of us have a network. But there are many men and women who don’t have either a network or that connection to making a second chance possible. For me, it’s the righteous thing to do. And supporting it is just as human as supporting any other cause.
People who get a second chance have a different perspective on life. And if we can take that perspective and build a skill around it, it changes everything.
Q: One last question … why French food?
It’s the best food. What don’t you like about the best? It’s got so many layers—not just of flavor but the history. That’s what makes it the best cuisine. The first time I stepped into a kitchen, I fell in love with French food. Cooking these products literally from the farm, a rabbit with hair on it or a fish right from the sea. Making the same recipes from centuries ago. That’s really where I fell in love.
To get connected with EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, contact Esther Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org.